'The Golden Compass' Spurs Controversy

Some religious groups are angry about the new film "The Golden Compass."

February 6, 2009, 8:43 PM

Dec. 8, 2007 — -- Despite the fantastical scenery, talking armor-wearing polar bears and even a swarm of flying witches, "The Golden Compass" is getting more attention not for its use of fantasy, but instead for something very real: religion.

The film, now open nationwide, is based on "His Dark Materials," a trilogy of books by English author Philip Pullman, a self-proclaimed atheist.

Since the film was commissioned — and even before shooting began — religious groups were outraged, pegging "The Golden Compass" as a direct attack on organized religion, particularly Catholicism.

The film chronicles the adventures of young protagonist Lyra, played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, as she seeks to find her schoolyard friend who has been kidnapped by the Magisterium — the name of the governing body of the fantasy world. The Magisterium's objective, we learn early on, is to rid all citizens of their free will.

The characters are all accompanied by "daemons," essentially talking animals intended to portray their inner spirits.

The children — whose spirits are presumably ever-changing — have daemons that are also constantly changing (Lyra's goes from cat to moth to ferret), while the adults' daemons remain constant. Members of the Magisterium have less-friendly daemons, such as hissing beetles and slithering snakes.

As Lyra gets closer to her goal of reaching the Magisterium — located in the alternate universe of Bolvanger — she realizes that it has been capturing children, removing their souls and preventing them from being touched by "dust," a substance that is alluded to be representative of the free will the Magisterium is trying to avoid and eliminate.

While the religious connotations are probably too advanced for younger viewers to pick up on — the supposed likeness of the Magisterium to the Catholic Church and the irony of its members having the ugliest of all the daemons to represent their true spirits — critics and fans have launched into a heated debate over the film, which some believe should be boycotted.

The first book of Pullman's trilogy was published in 1995, and saw great success in the United Kingdom and the United States selling more than 15 million copies, a figure that many say speaks to the author's storytelling ability.

Pullman, who was unavailable to comment directly to ABC News, was recently interviewed by Time magazine, where he quashed allegations that his film and books are anti-religious.

"I wouldn't want to be a part of any movement that had an agenda," Pullman told the magazine. "I'm not arguing a case. I'm not preaching a sermon. I'm not giving a lecture. I'm telling a story. Any position I take is that of a storyteller who says, 'Once upon a time, this happened.'"

New Line Cinema, the film's distributor, stood by Pullman, noting in a statement to ABC News that the film has been "praised by countless clergy and religious scholars, including the archbishop of Canterbury, for its deep spirituality and exploration of important theological issues."

But groups such as the Catholic League for Religious and Spiritual Rights don't agree, and say while the film is notably more "watered down" than Pullman's books are, both are still highly "anti-Christian and pro-atheist."

"Our fear is the parents who don't know what's actually in these books and don't learn about it from the film may think [the books] are great stocking stuffers for their kids on Christmas morning," Kiera McCaffrey, the spokeswoman for the Catholic League, told ABC News.

"Every single religious character is a terror in these books," said McCaffrey. "There isn't one who isn't. And the heroes of the book — the children — are taught that churches are all the same and that they obliterate good feelings."

McCaffrey said that the Catholic League has distributed thousands of copies of pamphlets about the film in hopes of discouraging people from seeing "Compass" and is also telling people to boycott the film and books.

"This isn't just a book that promotes atheism," said McCaffrey. "It denigrates faith — particularly Christianity. If there was a trilogy of books that were racist or anti-Semitic we wouldn't say 'lighten up' or 'let's let kids see another viewpoint.'"

But the importance of seeing another viewpoint is exactly what the Catholic League fails to understand, according to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"It's time we get past superstition, embrace reason and put our energies in the real world and not in a fantastic afterlife that nobody can prove," Gaylor said. "Why shouldn't our society be open to other views?"

Several film critics told ABC News that any film that hints at religion is likely to provoke a debate, much like the one surrounding "Compass."

"Whether it's controversy about religion or sex or violence, we look at them and there are certain hot-button issues that if they get addressed are bound to be controversial," said Jed Dannenbaum, a film professor at the University of Southern California. "[Pullman] identified himself as an atheist and I imagine if he'd never said anything nobody would have particularly noticed that about the books or the film."

"Something that challenges the prevailing religion in the country will always be controversial," said Dannenbaum, who added that he'd be more concerned about parents monitoring their children's exposure to violence than movies like "Compass."

More worrisome to religion and film experts was the way in which some people would rather silence conversation about complicated issues, rather than encourage it.

"'Harry Potter' didn't make a bunch of atheists," said Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, a professor of religious art and culture history at Georgetown University. "Discussion of religion has become so painted and so questionable that I don't think we're sitting down and asking the fundamental questions."

"I think these movies begin conversations," added Apostolos-Cappadona. "What is more harmful than shutting out conversation and ideas?"

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